My Favorite Whole Wheat Bread

WHEN I WANT REALLY GOOD WHOLE WHEAT BREAD, I turn to Julia Child. Her recipe is different from most, because it doesn’t use a regular yeast dough, but a “starter” — yeast, flour and water fermented overnight. This makes the bread deliciously moist, and improves its keeping quality. And did I mention her bread makes the crunchiest toast in the world?

Although Child’s recipe calls for a cup of high-gluten flour, I use all-purpose instead. Why? Because I’m convinced that most modern strains of wheat are higher in gluten today than when her recipe was published. Adding more gluten just seems like overkill.

My Favorite Whole Wheat Bread
Based on a recipe by Julia Child
Ingredients for 2 big loaves:

The starter:
1 cup warm water (not more than 110 degrees)
1 packet yeast, either active dry or Rapid Rise
1 cup flour
1/8 tsp. sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

The dough:
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup cold milk (plus a few drops extra, if necessary)
1 stick butter, quartered lengthwise and then diced into 1/4-inch cubes

Special Equipment: A food processor outfitted with either plastic or steel blade; a large glass bowl; two 2-quart bread pans.

Preparing the starter — In a 4-cup measure, whisk together water, yeast, flour, sugar and salt until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap, and let sit overnight. It should start to bubble furiously, as above, after about 30 minutes. Yes, it’s alive!

The flours — Measure out both kinds of flour, and place them on separate sheets of waxed paper. This will make them easier to pour into the bowl of your food processor.

1. Making the dough — Unless your food processor is industrial-size — mine isn’t — you’ll need to prepare the dough in two batches: Pour half the whole wheat flour, half the white flour, and half the butter in the processor. Then turn the machine on, and let it run for 30 seconds to break up the butter.

2. Adding the starter — Add the cup of milk to the starter, and whisk to blend. Then turn the processor on, and pour in half the starter. If the dough doesn’t immediately mass on the blade, add more milk until it does. Turn the machine off, and let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

3. Machine kneading — Using on-off pulses, give the dough 10 spins in the processor; let rest for 5 minutes, then process an additional 30 times.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured cloth or marble board. Then repeat the above 3 steps with the remaining flour, butter, and yeast solution.

4. Hand kneading — Form the dough into a rough ball, and hand-knead it 30 times.

5. The first rise (about one hour) — Place the dough in a large, ungreased glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set someplace warm and out of drafts, and let the dough rise until it has doubled in size. If your kitchen is cold or drafty (like mine), heat your oven for exactly 90 seconds, turn it off, and then set the bowl on the lower middle rack in the oven.

6. Deflating — This is fun! Punch the dough down to deflate it. Then press it into a flat rectangle. Fold one of the long sides over the middle, then fold the other long side over the top (as shown below). Then flatten the whole out again, and repeat the procedure. This technique distributes the yeast throughout the dough.

7. Second rise (one hour or more) — Form the dough into a ball, and let it rise in the bowl a second time, until it has grown to 2-3 times its original size. In a warm environment this will take an hour, or slightly longer.

8. Forming the loaves — Pour the dough onto your work surface, and cut it in half. Press each half into a rectangle roughly the length of your bread pan. Fold the rectangle in half, and then press the edge to seal.

Now turn the edge upright, and with the side of your wrist, flatten the edge to make a trench. Fold and seal as before, pinching the ends with your fingers. Place into bread pans, tucking in ends if they are too long. Cover with a towel, and let the dough rise, for about 30 minutes, or until the top of the dough is a half inch above the top of its pan.

9. Baking — 30 minutes at 450F, 15 minutes at 400F. Preheat oven to 450F. If your oven is gas, like mine, set a flame proof skillet on the bottom to catch the water you’ll pour there later on. Water creates steam in the oven, and this makes for a glorious crust. If you have an electric oven, just keep a cup of water handy.

Set bread on the lower middle rack, and pour in the cup of water. Then bake at 450F for exactly 30 minutes; reduce heat to 400F, and bake for an additional 15 minutes.

10. Checking for doneness — Remove the loaves, and check their temperature with a thermometer. If the bread has reached 200F, it is done. If it is not quite done yet, reduce temperature to 375F, and let cook for an additional 5 minutes or so, until the proper temperature is reached. Cool on a wire rack.

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  1. Eric in Albany says:

    Kevin, homemade bread is the best. I've been afraid to try it. But your explanation and pictures make it seem like even I could handle the job!

  2. There is nothing like homemade bread, and this one looks wonderful. You amaze me.

  3. Kevin, this sounds terrific! I have an electric oven and would like to try this. I am confused about what to do with the cup of water during the baking process. Thanks!

  4. Cary – With an electric oven, you throw the cup of water into the oven immediately after you set the bread on the rack. Then close the oven door. The steam will give your bread a beautiful crust.

  5. I just used this recipe for my first ever try at making home made bread ( with yeast). I just have one suggestion- SALT! I’m not sure if it’s a typo or if the no salt flavor is appealing to some ( I may be a salt junkie), but I will add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the recipe next time. Thank-you for making a bread recipe sound do-able.

  6. dkapteyn – How bland that bread must have been! And it’s all my fault. There should be 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt. I’ve made the correction to the recipe above, and I’ve also given myself 40 lashes for the blunder.

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